Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Epiphany #8

Each time we meet at Panera, my father orders a mug of steamed, skim milk.  "In the biggest mug you have," he'll command sometimes.  "No foam," he'll remind them at other times.  Most of the people who work there, at least the ones who have been there awhile, know him and his order.  And he knows them, but still, sometimes he's gruff and inflexible, sometimes has the whole thing redone done if they accidentally steam 2% milk instead of skim.

Me, I try to tease with them.  "I'll bet he's the only one who orders that," I'll say confidentially when he has moved away.  Or, "It's us again."  Or, "Thanks for accommodating him."

Why does he do it?  Because instead of hot chocolate, he likes to bring his own vial of Ovaltine to make his own hot drink for our chats.  Hot chocolate is too sweet, too full of fat.  It is not what he wants.  And he knows what he wants.

Why do I do it?  Because he embarrasses me.  There, I said it.  Sometimes out in public, my beloved father embarrasses me.  He embarrasses me because he does not compromise on the simple details of everyday life, and something that strikes me as a minor irritation becomes a major issue.  And unpleasantness.

Anyone who takes an elderly person out on the town probably knows what I'm talking about.  And we probably need to get over that.  But our real problem, at least mine, isn't embarrassment.   What bothers me about my interactions with my father and other people is the conspiracy that develops between all of us except him.  Between tone of voice, looks and rolls of the eyes, and secret words, we all collude to manage the elderly.

I noticed it again the other day at the hospital.  The doctor came in, talked to my dad some, but then started talking to me as if my father were not there.  We engaged in a kind of "he won't understand so I'm telling you" conversation about his release and follow-up, and I'm embarrassed to say that I went along with it.  I always do, even though my father is very mentally sharp and rarely confused.  And I think when we do it I can feel him retreating, backing away from his own situation because he senses that something is passing him by or that we are just enough out of earshot that he must place himself at our mercy.

I need to fix this.  It might be great to think of myself as the conciliatory communicator who can smooth over a situation by shrugging and winking and tacitly implying that we (I and the other younger person) both know that older people are difficult and need some coddling and need to have some decision-making taken out of their hands.  It might be easier to act in a way that says "just let me get him situated and I'll handle it from there."  But that is unfair.

Not only does he deserve the dignity of being heard and included, but he is also very often right.  Why should he back down from being part a generation with more exacting standards than what we have now?

My daughter got a meal at a restaurant the other day that wasn't quite what she ordered, but she kept it anyway.  "It looks good," she told the waitress, and everyone was happy.  My father would never have done that.  At the hospital, he did not think the care he got was as careful as what he had received in the past.  And he was upset about it.  And he wanted someone to know. 

I think too often that our chugging, charging, technological world has passed the elderly by, that their attitudes and values are passe, while their habits and behaviors annoy rather than instruct, especially when my father's actions make like more difficult for me.  But all he really wants, in addition to a little earned dignity, are services rendered for payment he has made.  I'm not sure that is so old-fashioned and am not sure why I settle for less.


Billy said...

Interesting thoughts. It sounds like you believe your father would have comported himself and uttered/demanded the same things in 1965 or 1985 as he would in 2014.

That's now how I perceive my mother. I believe the restrictor plate to her own id, her instinctive thoughts/opinions has been slowly falling apart. My mother says things aloud, with children around, in 2014 that would have inspired her to hit someone with a frying pan if they'd said it in her presence 30 years ago. What I'm saying is, my mom would have behaved, at your daughter's age, how your daughter behaved. But now, at your father's age, she behaves more like your father. What I'm saying is, are you certain that it's not your dad's behavior that has changed?

Some of what you are saying about how we treat and eyeroll the elderly -- especially our loved ones -- is more than valid, and I'm not trying to dismiss all of your points. But the words that come from my mother's 73-year-old mouth are not words her 43-year-old self would have ever, ever uttered without massive involuntary injections of illicit substances. I'm just wondering if that's not also true of your father.

Bob said...

Oh, he's changed in some ways, like being more likely to discuss bodily functions in public, but his exacting standards in restaurants, for example, have been with us for a long, long time. What changes is that with my beloved mother no longer here to rein him in, that duty falls to me, the more reluctant child.

troutking said...

Good post. I have some things to learn from it. But I always send meals back at restaurants if they aren't right!

Bob said...

Trout, but I doubt you then go into a mode where nothing they could possibly do will satisfy you